A chat in the chilly Nairobi with Tsitsi Ndangarembga

Writers Tsitsi Ndangarembga and Zukiswa Wanne in Nairobi.

Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Ndangarembga (left) and South African writer Zukiswa Wanner speak to readers at Cheche Bookshop, in Lavington, Nairobi on July 10.

Photo credit: Mbugua Ngunjiri | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Tsitsi Ndangarembga's highly acclaimed book, Nervous Conditions has remained relevant and evergreen since being written in the 1980s.
  • In March this year, Ndangarembga won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, which comes with a prize purse of $165,000 (approximately Sh20 million, going by the current exchange rate).
  • The 63-year-old writer, who is also an award-winning filmmaker, has written two other books, The Book of Not and This Mournable Body, which are sequels to Nervous Conditions.

Last Saturday, Nairobi was especially chilly, even by July standards, but then this did not dampen the spirits of some book lovers, who made it to the Cheche Bookshop, in Lavington, to listen to Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Ndangarembga speak to South African writer Zukiswa Wanner, courtesy of the Artistic Encounters program.

The setting, inside the bookshop, was cosy, with Ndangarembga and Wanner seated on a raised platform, with colourful murals in the background.

The only thing missing from the whole set-up was perhaps a fire to drive away the cold.

For the uninitiated, Ndangarembga is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Nervous Conditions.

Though written in the 1980s, the book has remained relevant and evergreen.

Accolades

In 2018, BBC included Nervous Conditions, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, in 1989, in their list of 100 books that have shaped the world.

In March this year, Ndangarembga won the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, which comes with a prize purse of $165,000 (approximately Sh20 million, going by the current exchange rate).

“Those were the kind of prizes I didn’t allow myself to think about as a young writer. Who can win that kind of competition and have such kind of recognition with such kind of financial assistance? It wasn’t really something that I thought was going to happen,” she said in slow measured tones.

The 63-year-old writer, who is also an award-winning filmmaker, has written two other books, The Book of Not and This Mournable Body, which are sequels to Nervous Conditions.

This Mournable Body was 2020 shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

She was in the country courtesy of her position at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where she is the International Chair in Creative Writing.

Mentorship projects

Under the program, the university is supposed to mentor writers in five regions of the world to come up with manuscripts, over a period of five years.

The African region has been the first beneficiary of the grant.

“In April, we had a workshop in Uganda,” she told Wanner during the discussion.

“Later this month, I will be in Zimbabwe to work with drama writers. In September we will do children’s literature in Botswana.” The project has also worked with writers in Namibia.

For the Kenyan leg, Wanner facilitated a writing masterclass in English, while Elias Mutani, a Tanzanian, handled the Kiswahili bit.

It is expected that participants of the project, which took place at the United Kenya Club, will come up with two collections of short stories, in English and Kiswahili.

“If we are working, we have to have something to show for it; we have to have something to give the world,” explained Ndangarembga.

“We are hoping to get a collection of short stories from Namibia and the Kenyan one which will be bilingual. We are also hoping that UEA will produce one of the plays from Uganda. I am also dreaming of at least one beautifully illustrated children’s book to come out of Botswana.”

What does Ndangarembga think about the Kenyan writers they have been mentoring?

“I have been having fun, reading their work, really being impressed by their amazing talent and the wealth of stories.”

Artistic Encounters, a brainchild of Wanner, is an innovative project, where two artists from different genres share the stage to 'discuss' a project.

In Saturday's case, Hana Kefela, a Kenyan-based Eritrean performing artiste took the stage to give her artistic rendition of Nervous Conditions, which left Ndangarembga quite impressed.

Wanner sold the idea to the Goethe Institute in Nairobi, in 2017. The project has since featured over 30 artistes, across genes, over the period.

“I wanted to do this as a festival in Nairobi. I have pitched it to one of the universities in Kenya; whereby we would have a major literary and art festival here in Kenya and a minor one in Johannesburg,” explained Wanner.

“The University of Johannesburg told me they would be interested. So I am still trying to push the Nairobi section of it.”

Wanner, who has stayed in Kenya since 2011, is best known for her books, Men of the South and The Madams, which are currently being turned into a movie.

His other books include Behind Every Successful Man and London Cape Town Joburg.

She has now branched into publishing, with her outfit Paivapo (once upon a time, in Karanga, her mother’s language) having published 10 books so far, including Mukoma wa Ngugi's We, The Scarred.

She considers Ndangarembga her role model.

“I first read Nervous Conditions in 1987, in Zimbabwe, when it first came out and I was in primary school. It changed my life; not only was I, as a young person, seeing that there could be people like me in literature but equally, I had affirmation that women could dare to be writers. Up until then, the only African writers I had known were men,” Wanner says of Ndangarembga.

From Nairobi, Ndangarembga heads back home to Zimbabwe, for the next round of writing workshops.

Court case

Her first order of business, upon landing in Harare, will be heading to court to have a warrant of arrest issued against her lifted.

The warrant was issued when she failed to appear for a court hearing scheduled for June 27.

“I was abroad at the time of the hearing,” Ndangarembga told her audience at Cheche.

“The court had been informed about this. The warrant of arrest, which will not be effected, pending my showing that I respect the court by going to show my face, when I arrive and to apply to have it cancelled.”

She faces charges of violating Covid regulations, by attending a meeting with the intent to incite public violence, bigotry and breach of peace.

Ndangarembga had been arrested in July 2020, for taking part in an anti-corruption protest against the Zimbabwean government.

Two years and 25 court appearances later, the trial is yet to start.

The case has attracted global attention with the writing fraternity, including PEN International, seeing it as being politically motivated. They are now calling for the dropping of charges. 

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.